OTTAWA — The first COVID-19 vaccines were injected into the arms of Canadians on Monday, a historic moment some have dubbed “V-Day,” as the country enters a new phase of the ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus.
In Ontario and Quebec, the first shots were administered to a small group of prioritized people on Monday, after Pfizer-BioNTech’s initial shipments of doses landed on Sunday night.
This week, 14 sites across the 10 provinces will be receiving Canada’s initial 30,000 doses, as the country’s largest and most logistically complex mass-immunization campaign kicks off.
“I’m very pleased with how this is unfolding,” said the top military general who is leading the rollout from the Public Health Agency of Canada, Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin on Monday afternoon.
The landmark vaccination effort is focusing first on the people who the virus has hit hardest in this country: staff and residents of long-term care homes as well as frontline health care staff treating COVID-19 patients.
Canada’s first recipient of a COVID-19 vaccine was 89-year-old Gisele Levesque, a resident at the Saint-Antoine long-term care home in Quebec City. She got her shot at 11:25 a.m. In that province, vaccinations also began at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal. That province was set to receive 1,950 initial doses.
“You will hear the emotion in my voice, because this is a very big day for us today,” said Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, at a press conference outside of Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal.
The first vaccine given in Ontario went to personal support worker Anita Quidangen. She received her shot at the Michener Institute, part of the University Health Network in Toronto, donning scrubs and a face mask. Camera crews were on-hand to capture the moment, carried live on TV, at 12:03 p.m. EST.
“Thank you very much… “I’m excited,” Quidangen said to applause from colleagues.
She was one of five front-line workers from the Rekai Centre—the first multilingual, non-profit nursing home in Canada—to be given the first chance to receive some of that province’s initial 6,000 doses.
“She has worked tirelessly to care for some of our most vulnerable, both throughout this pandemic and since her first days as a PSW in 1988. Anita has spent years rolling up her sleeves to protect our province, and today, she didn’t hesitate to find a new way to do so,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford in a statement.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu was in Montreal for the occasion, and said the last nine months have been traumatic for many Canadians, particularly those who work in or have loved ones inside long-term care homes or other health-care facilities.
“I know how worried and anxious families and health-care workers are, all across the country,” she said. “So I see this as the first step forward into the light.”
Sitting in specialized freezer boxes, the doses left Europe for Canada over the weekend, and Fortin said Monday he was not aware of any issues with keeping the doses that arrived so far at the extreme cold temperature required.
“Everything’s going according to plans,” he said.
As of Monday evening there had been no reports of adverse reactions among the first Canadian recipients of the vaccine.
THOUSANDS VACCINATED BEFORE 2021
Over the course of the day more shipments from UPS, who the pharmaceutical giant has contracted to deliver the vaccines, have been arriving at the other delivery sites across Canada. At each, plans are in place to start vaccinating even more health-care staff and long-term care home residents and their caregivers, on Tuesday and continuing all week long.
“We finally have a tool to protect the residents, so it’s a great day for us,” said Lucie Tremblay, the director of nursing for CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, in an interview on CTV News Channel. “It’s the beginning of the end of this awful illness. I think that for the last 10 months, everybody was under a lot of stress. We were always afraid that the residents would get the illness, we were afraid of losing residents and we did, unfortunately.”
According to federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand, approximately 30,000 more doses are expected to arrive next week, as the country’s supply will continue arriving in stages.
“Canada is charting its path forward towards recovery,” Anand said Monday.
Though the next round of deliveries could be much larger.
“There could be significantly more than 30,000, but at this time I’m not prepared to speak to the exact numbers… between now and the end of the end of this month, we can have up to 219,000 additional doses. The exact scheduled delivery remains to be finalized,” Fortin said Monday.
Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro also signalled his province is bracing to get a much larger shipment next week. Initial vaccinations are slated to begin in Alberta on Wednesday, with calls being put in to the early recipients to schedule their appointments.
Retired Canadian Armed Forces Gen. Rick Hillier, who is leading Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, said that Monday marks the start of what will be likely close to a year-long process to see everyone who wants to be vaccinated able to do so.
“We’re all feeling, maybe just a little tiny sigh of relief now… maybe there is hope that we’ll get out of this incredible period that we’ve been through that’s been so brutal on everybody,” said Hillier in an interview on CTV News Channel on Monday.
Hillier said Ontario’s approach is to hold on to half of the vials that have arrived so far, to secure them as the second dose to give to those who are getting vaccinated this week, three weeks from now, rather than give them all out and hope the second round arrives in time.
“We can’t change the supply, I can’t make every vaccine that we need show up here on day one and put it into the arm of somebody who needs it and wants it, which is hopefully the vast majority of the population here in Ontario,” he said.
While it’s the moment many have been waiting for, infectious disease specialist and Ontario vaccine task force member Isaac Bogoch told CTV’s Your Morning that this first batch is more like a “trial run” until more shipments arrive in the coming days and weeks.
“It’s a small initial batch,” said Bogoch. “These  programs are going to start. It’s going to take some time for them to take off, but they are going to take off, and soon every Canadian will be able to get access to this and this terrible pandemic will come to an end.”
Between now and the end of December, Canada is set to receive 249,000 doses from Pfizer, after the federal government secured an early first delivery just days ahead of Health Canada’s authorization. The initial plan was to see Canada’s vaccine effort kick off in earnest in January.
By the end of March Canada is set to receive four million total doses, which is enough to fully vaccinate two million people, given it’s a two-shot immunization process with the second needle administered 21 days following the first. In total, Canada is set to receive 20 million Pfizer doses.
Those being vaccinated this week won’t achieve the promised more than 90 per cent immunity until the second week of January.
The provinces have been tasked with keeping track of who has been vaccinated and ensuring they come back on time for their second shot, but the federal government will also be keeping track of the rates of immunization.
PANDEMIC FAR FROM OVER
The big week finally comes more than nine months after the World Health Organization officially labelled global SARS-COV-2 outbreaks a pandemic and Canadians first entered lockdown amid a first wave of infections. Since then, infections dipped and surged again. Health officials in Canada have confirmed more than 460,000 cases of COVID-19 and close to 13,500 deaths as of Monday. Worldwide, the novel coronavirus has killed more than 1.6 million people.
The Pfizer-BioNTech shots are the first of several vaccines expected to be on the market soon, according to experts, after record-breaking development and production by scientists around the world. Americans began receiving Pfizer vaccines on Monday as well.
Canada has signed deals with seven vaccine manufactures, securing more than 400 million doses of potential COVID-19 vaccines, should all trials pan out.
“This is incredible stuff. We all know how horrible it’s been with the pandemic globally and of course here in Canada,” said Bogoch.
But officials are still warning that “V-Day” excitement doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. On Sunday night, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that Canadians should continue wearing masks, washing hands, avoiding gatherings and using the COVID Alert exposure notification app.
“This is good news. But our fight against COVID-19 is not over,” he wrote. “Now more than ever, let’s keep up our vigilance.”
Canadians should “double down” in the coming weeks, as the vaccination programs are likely to face a number of hurdles, Bogoch said.
MODERNA APPROVAL NEXT?
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is not the COVID-19 panacea. Because the vaccine’s requirements are particularly complicated, including the need to be stored at -70 C, initial doses are not being distributed to Indigenous communities or the territories.
The hope is that the Moderna vaccine candidate, which has yet to be approved by Health Canada but has less complicated storage requirements, will be able to roll out to those communities soon.
Moderna’s vaccine candidate is now the most advanced in Canada’s regulatory process, but there isn’t a date or estimate yet for when it may be given the green light. Provinces though, are preparing to be able to have access to this vaccine option later this month.
Anand said that the government is currently in talks with Moderna about receiving initial doses early.
“We are in touch with our suppliers every day, including Moderna, and we are pressing for early deliveries of the doses pending Health Canada regulatory approval,” said Anand in an interview with Evan Solomon on CTV’s Question Period that aired Sunday.
Bogoch suggested that a “mobile truck” operation could even administer a less complex vaccine like Moderna’s to people experiencing homelessness in urban areas, but in the meantime “we just have to work within the confines of the vaccine properties that we have access to.”
While this week is a promising milestone during a long pandemic, Canadians are a long way out from “normal,” said Bogoch.
“We’ll probably start to see a lifting of these health restrictions when enough Canadians have had access to the vaccine,” he said.
The federal government is aiming to have all Canadians who want to be vaccinated receive their shots by the end of 2021.
With files from CTV Montreal and CTV Toronto